The Power of Words

St George’s Church, Douglas

Holocaust Memorial Service: 28 January 2018

‘The Power of Words

Words have the power to cause immense harm and hurt, and they have the power to heal.

They can hurt at the simplest and most superficial level, and they can also do so at the deepest of all levels, disparaging and undermining the humanity of those at whom they are directed.  But the deepest harm of all that is done by those who utter destructive words is the harm that is done to themselves, because they disgrace themselves, and they renounce their own humanity.

Words are the everyday discourse of our lives, but they are also the material of art, of poetry. They are ultimately the only means that we have of articulating reality and of expressing it to one another.  And when we find words that are able to convey deep truths, we enter a reality of communication that we call poetry.

Today, reflecting on ‘the power of words’, I hold before us just a very few words, in the hope that they might help us to find meaning in the midst of moral anarchy and chaos.

Perhaps the pre-eminent meditation on the European Jewish catastrophe that we call the Holocaust is a lyric entitled ‘Death Fugue’, written by a German-speaking Jewish poet.  His name was Paul Celan, and the poem was written in 1944 or 1945, and published significantly later.  The writer, born in 1920, was a prisoner in a labour camp during the Second World War; his father died in a concentration camp in 1942, and his mother was shot in the back of the neck in the same camp later that year.

‘Fugue of Death’: ‘Todesfuge’ is the original German title.  It takes the musical idea of a fugue, in which a voice appears, and is then ‘chased’ by a second voice, itself subsequently pursued by a third, and you don’t need know German to pick up the sense of pursuit in the poem’s rhythm.  Listen to the terrible and terrifying pictures that it produces:

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng

Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime

we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night

we drink and drink; we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie

And then:

Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete

er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne 
er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes, who writes to Germany when it’s nightfall: your golden hair Margareta; he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start flashing; he whistles his dogs to draw near, whistles his Jews to appear, starts us scooping a grave out of sand, he commands us to play for the dance

We hear the assonance of the word ‘Ruede’, meaning ‘dog’, with the word ‘Jude’, meaning ‘Jew’; in ‘commanding us to play for the dance’, we hear the echo of the Psalm, in which the exiled people of Israel are called by their captors, at the waters of Babylon, to sing the songs of their homeland.  And then:

Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

He calls Play death more sweetly, Death is a Master from Germany; he calls scrape that violin more darkly, then hover like smoke in the air, then scoop out a grave in the clouds where it’s roomy to lie

The reference is to the music of Wagner, the ‘Mastersingers of Nuremberg’, and the European musical and cultural tradition that could enable the obscenity of a string quartet playing in the concentration camps.

And at the end of each section comes the dreadful couplet:

dein goldenes Haar Margarete 
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

your golden hair Margareta; your ashen hair Sulamith

The terrible contrast is made between the golden hair of the German Margareta, the heroine of Goethe’s poetry, and the ‘ashen’ hair of the Jewish woman.

At this point, we arrive at the extremity of what words can convey, and of what we want to hear.  Language itself seems corrupted by the pictures that it draws, just as the violin that plays in the death-camp is tainted.  All culture, all music, all language is spoilt by these things, and I call to mind Thomas Mann, the greatest prose stylist and novelist of the German language in the 20th century, asking the rhetorical question of whether his nation’s language and culture could ever again be restored to grace.

You have invited me to preach today, which I take as the greatest honour.  But it seems to me appropriate that I let the words of the Jewish poet speak to us.  Perhaps the question for me, as a student of German literature, has to do with how I translate these words of Paul Celan.  They are written in German, so I have spoken them in German, for every language has its own integrity, and thus we will conclude today’s service with the blessing of Aaron in Hebrew and English and Manx.  When we step beyond our own language, we step into that which is unfamiliar, and it is then that life becomes threatening and challenging and terrifying.  In translating these words into my own language, I make a decision as to how seriously I take them, and pose the question of whether that experience can, to any degree, be understood by one who was not there.

There is no sense of redemption in these words.  How can there be?  Paul Celan, disorientated by the personal and political experiences of his time, took his own life in 1970, aged 50.  And yet, and yet … we hear his words today, and they will be heard in Germany, where this poem almost has the status of a national song of remorse.  So we might say that redemption is actually found in articulating an experience on the part of those who were there, and being able to listen to it on the part of those who were not.  Chief Rabbi Ephraim said on Tuesday that there are no words in our dictionaries to convey the horror of these things.  That is true, but the words of poetry and of scripture, and the strivings of art, may take us close, if we are willing to listen.  They teach us, in addition, several great truths:  that only those to whom wrong has been done can forgive; that the only punishment worthy of the name lies in the conscience of the perpetrator; and that listening with humility to the voice of history can give us an authentic hope for the future.




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